While contemplating your goal of being a music star, it’s smart to have something to fall back on. For singer-songwriter Suzie Brown, that meant getting her MD at Harvard, a Master of Science in Translational Research from the University of Pennsylvania, then practicing cardiology. That’s right, Brown—whose first full-length, Heartstrings, drops May 24—is no slacker. And it’s with that same resolve that she decided one day to defer her dream no longer.
It happened at her friend’s wedding in June 2009. Brown was goaded to jump on stage at the reception, where she sang one of her favorite tunes, Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel From Montgomery.” The crowd fell silent. This, she discovered, was a good thing: They were awestruck by her honey-twanged voice. “The whole weekend, people were coming up to me asking if I was a musician,” says Brown. “It gave me that little bit of extra confidence I need to take the plunge and start writing songs.” Just six months later, she’d find fans in folk-jazz artist Amos Lee and country great Lyle Lovett. A year after that, she was named the “Best of Philly” for music talent by Philadelphia magazine.
There’s no disputing that Brown works hard, but her material isn’t exactly a tough sell. The string-soaked “Heartstrings” is an ode to unrequited love that’s a throwback to the work of Patsy Cline. The bluesy “What You Do to Me” is an end-of-the-night jukebox crooner. The jaunty “I’ll Be Gone” sounds like a hand-clapping anthem out of KT Tunstall’s catalog. These are soulful, but uplifting, tunes that could appear in an Apple ad as easily as they could soundtrack an episode of, yes, Grey’s Anatomy.
But it took Brown decades to get to this place. Growing up in Boston, she would lock herself inside her bedroom obsessively taping Top 40 tracks off the radio so that she could memorize every last lyric. (Her first actual album: the Sound of Music soundtrack. She and her sister used to re-enact scenes from the movie in the basement.) Her family sometimes sang Pete Seeger songs sitting in front of the fire, but for the most part, Brown was too timid to perform outside the confines of her hearth, channeling her energy instead into the unlikely combo of softball and math.
During her last year as an undergraduate science student at Dartmouth, she worked up the nerve to try out for an a cappella group. “When I joined, I was like, ‘Oh my god, these are my people!” says Brown, who later learned to play the guitar by ear. After graduation, she enrolled for fun in a summer program at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. There, Brown boned up on music theory, took voice lessons, and when it was time to head off for med school, “had a complete meltdown,” she confesses. “I was afraid to leave music.”
While working on her MD at Harvard, Brown stoked her free-spirited side by hitting open-mic nights and even joining a production of Hair. Yup, “we did the full monty,” she says, laughing. “And it was totally awesome.” Her subsequent cardiology fellowship in Philadelphia, however, proved even more demanding, and she missed the music community she had pieced together in Boston. When the rigorous training was finally over, Brown found time to clock in hours at local folkie hangouts such as Tin Angel, Dawson Street Pub, World Café Live, and the Blinkin Lincoln. “This was just a community I was comfortable in,” she explains. And yet she secretly harbored bigger aspirations.
A chance encounter with Philly folk-jazz singer Amos Lee at the Newport Folk Festival would prove most fortuitous. In addition to being a source of moral support, Lee would introduce her to his Supply and Demand producer, Barrie Maguire, who went on to helm Heartstrings. After her friend’s fateful wedding, Brown finally began to pen her first songs. What took her so long? “Of course, I had something to say,” she explains, “but the perfectionist in me was so afraid to write something terrible that it kept me from writing anything at all! Finally I realized that it wasn’t about being perfect, it was about being honest.”
Her burgeoning career moved at a rapid pace. By early 2009, she sold out her first solo show at the Tin Angel—that very club she used to frequent as a fan. Before long, she was opening for Lyle Lovett at the local concert hall. Just nine months after that, she had written enough material for a self-released EP called Side Streets. Says Brown, “I had this realization that music made me way too happy to commit my whole life to medicine.” It was a pinch-me moment: Realizing her potential, Brown found a part-time clinical job to pay the bills, and has since devoted herself to making music. “Things have moved along fairly quickly,” says the ever-effervescent Brown. We’ll say: In two years, she’s gone from composing her first song to releasing her first full-length album. Says Brown, “I can’t believe this is my life.”